Risk-Taking as a 21st Century Skill

I love serendipitous learning experiences! You hear about an idea in one place, and it increases your awareness of the topic. Then you discover it in other places over the upcoming days and weeks.  Each new experience amplifies the impact of the idea, leading you to consider life implications and applications. That happened to me this week.

It started with a pre-conference keynote that I presented at the Learning Revolution conference. I presented on 8 Laws of the Self-Directed Learner, a series of principles that I’ve pulled together from study of self-directed learning over the past couple of years, but I framed them similarly to John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching (1888). Essentially, I revised his seven laws (and added one) to better reflect the distinctives of self-directed learning. The presentation was great fun with some excellent comments and feedback from the participants.

Steve Hargadon served as a moderator, and he pointed out a couple of excellent and important principles that seemed to be missing from my proposed list. One that stuck with me was the idea of risk-taking. The willingness to take risks is a critical part of self-directed living and learning. Without it, one misses out on many high-impact learning experiences. It takes courage to reach out and connect with other people. It takes courage to try something new. It takes courage to work on a new skill, making your current limited ability evident to those around (remembering my last time at an ice-skating rink, tripping my way around the rink as ten year old kids zoom past me). Steve is right. Risk-taking is such a fundamental part of self-directed learning that it certainly warrants a dedicated spot in any list of laws or principles on the topic. 

Then I started reading a book on the airplane yesterday. It is one of those books that I read every year or two. It is a book called Holy Sweat by Tim Hansel. While I don’t agree with some of his points, he writes with rich and powerful analogies and illustrations that always lead me into new ways of thinking about life and learning. Tim has an amazing life story that he shares in another book called, You Gotta Keep Dancin’. He fell fifty feet in a mountain climbing accident and suffered from daily chronic back pain for the rest of his life. Each morning was a battle to get out of bed, to fight through the pain. Tim passed away in 2009, and I’m certain that those who knew him well would say that he lived a courageous life.

As I see it, courage and risk-taking are close relatives, and both are required to embrace and act upon a life of self-directed learning. In Holy Sweat, Tim tells the story of Desert Pete. It is about a person hiking through the desert, badly dehydrated, potentially close to death. The person comes upon a well and well pump with a message attached. The message explains that the well has plenty of water, but to get the pump working, it requires priming it with a little water. The letter explained that a small corked bottle of water was hidden beneath a nearby rock. The hiker is left with a choice. Drink the small bottle of water and ignore the letter, which would likely be not enough water to sustain him. Or, he could trust the author of the letter, take a risk, and prime the pump with the water, resulting in all the water he wanted. Tim uses this story to expound upon the role of courage in a person’s life. He wrote, “Like a heart, courage pumps life into all other virtues.” He compares lives without out courage to nice-looking cars without motors.

It is courage that allows one to take the next step as a learner. It takes courage to be transparent about our limited knowledge and skill, to build new learning connections with others, to fuel our learning goals with action. As such, courage and calculated risk-taking is among the more fundamental skills of the self-directed learner. So, it seems like my list of self-directed learner principles has just grown by one.

Questions for Reflection

  • When has a lack of courage prevented you from learning something new?
  • What role has courage played in your learning something new?
  • How do we help ourselves and others develop a healthy measure of calculated risk-taking as learners?
  • How do we value and encourage risk-taking in our learning organizations?
  • Or, what can we do to create learning organizations that are safe places for risk-taking?
  • To what extent do teachers play a role in helping others gain the confidence and courage to take risks as learners?
  • How can we design feedback and assessment plans that celebrate risk-taking rather than making people risk averse?
  • In what ways have we inadvertently discouraged risk-taking in the learning process?
  • What needs to stay and what needs to go for us to embrace the role of courage and risk-taking as we embrace and encourage self-directed learning?
Posted in blog, education, heutagogy

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.